The Future of Asia’s Regional Architecture

-- Address at the 6th World Peace Forum

Kevin Rudd , Former Prime Minister of Australia

I start with a basic but difficult question: in the first half of the twenty-first century, will the Asia-Pacific be able to maintain a further generation of economic growth and sustain peace in the face of unprecedented geopolitical change?

Until recently, the answer to this seemed to be an unequivocal yes. Conventional wisdom suggested that the forces of economic globalization were drawing the region together, and would in time overcome the political, security, and territorial tensions left over from history.

Underlying this view was the corresponding assumption that a robust U.S. security presence would continue to provide much-needed stability, allowing nations to focus more on their common economic interests than perceived security threats.

Neither of these assumptions can now be taken for granted.

Globalization and economic integration now face a less certain future. While this is more evident in the West than in the East, there are now new threats to global trade, investment, and capital flows that will challenge all countries, including those in Asia.

Similarly, the election of a U.S. President who has sought to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward an “America First” approach raises new questions about the future U.S. security role in the region. One view is towards a general American retrenchment, and a more ambiguous commitment to traditional allies. Another is that America may become more interventionist, as some would argue the Trump administration's rhetoric suggests. Either way, the region faces fresh strategic uncertainty.

Apart from the question of the future trajectory of U.S. power in the region, there is the new dynamic of growing Chinese military power, economic influence and foreign policy activism in theregion.

Of course, these are not the only sources of strategic change for the region's future. The North Korean nuclear weapons program looms the largest of them all.

A range of other intra-regional tensions continue to ebb and flow, including the East China Sea, the South China Sea, cross-strait relations, India-Pakistan relations, as well as the unresolved questions of the Sino-Indian border.

On top of all these disputes also lies the uncertain trajectory of cyber-warfare in the region.

And then there is the overall ballooning of regional military expenditures, which in 2015 saw Asian military budgets for the first time exceed those of the Europeans in aggregate terms.

Strategic pessimists, often self-described as realists, argue that this cocktail of global and regional uncertainties will reach a dangerous critical mass, eroding the little remaining regional stocks of political and strategic trust, inevitably resulting in crisis, conflict, or even war.

But this reflects an excessively determinist view of history, and denies the power and impact of what the political scientists call "human agency."

My view is that Asia-Pacific governments have the ability, through the choices they make and the policies they pursue, to shape a different outcome for the region.

To achieve this outcome, therefore, in the midst of regional uncertainty, what difference can regional political institutions make? Are they sufficient in size and scope to make a material difference to the prevailing strategic culture of the region? If not, then how might they be reshaped?

Of course, long-standing strategic perceptions, often based on conflicting interests, values, and historical experience, cannot be wished away if we choose to bring a new regional institution into being, or breathe life into an old one.

The history of international relations tells us that will simply not be the case.

But it is equally true that it can become a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy to simply assume the worst about other states and to prepare ourselves accordingly.

But I believe there is a credible third way, one that recognizes geopolitical divides where they exist, but at the same time also acknowledges that strategic disagreements are often better managed, reduced or possibly resolved within the framework of regional institutions that are anchored in commonly-accepted norms, protocols, and procedures.

Over time, such regional institutions can also begin to change the way in which states think about each other, see each other and respond to one another.

Indeed the core logic of such an institutional approach is that common perceptions of many member states’ regional challenges and opportunities would become greater over time.

And furthermore, that this emerging institutional presence would slowly change the prevailing strategic culture, rather than have the strategic culture dominated exclusively by historical, territorial and bilateral tensions which have divided regional states over the decades and, in some cases, centuries.


So what does the current order look like? I see it defined by five attributes.

• First, realpolitik is alive and well. The region’s security order remains primarily state-based, and shifting power dynamics have heightened geopolitical tensions. This has created a new sense of competition among leaders for political, economic and security influence.

• Second, tensions between the United States and China are also generating schisms in the regional order. Many nations feel increasingly torn between their reliance on the U.S. security umbrella and their dependence on China’s growing economic influence.

• Third, the post-war era has seen an accumulation of ASEAN-centric regional bodies. These have been good for Southeast Asian regional security. The large number of these institutions (ASEAN, ASEAN+3, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum) have allowed states to navigate contentious issues more efficiently. However the parallel reality is that this ‘variable geometry’ approach has weakened the necessity of developing stronger pan-regional consensus around agreed norms and rules of the road.

• Fourth, while ASEAN is still central, its consensus-based approach is under strain. This year marks its 50th anniversary, and it has achieved much in that time. But the challenge for ASEAN will be how it manages to maintain its internal cohesion in order to play a more important leadership role in the wider region.

• And fifth, great powers and regional institutions can be fair-weather friends. Great powers have often been reluctant to tie themselves to too closely to regional groupings. Often they prefer to be able to act unilaterally. We see this in the relative weakness of the only pan-regional institution – the East Asia Summit – which has a regional security mandate but so far has not developed regional norms, practices and procedures to which the external great powers are prepared to tie themselves.


Given this context, we must therefore ask what is possible for the future economic, political, and security architecture of the AsiaPacific region.

Put simply, it’s about how we can use effective regional institutions to take the regional temperature down over time, rather than just simply allowing it to spiral out of control.

I believe to fulfill this role, institutions need to do the following. They should:

• play a binding role, drawing states toward greater convergence around common security interests;

• mitigate against historic mistrust;

• facilitate better management of crises and disputes;

• rationalise and align the efforts of individual institutions and mechanisms; 

• provide flexibility in setting an appropriate, forward-looking agenda.

The question is how to support these goals in order to develop a more effective regional security architecture for the long-term future.

A renewed regional architecture must include all the necessary participants to address the region’s most critical strategic concerns.

And ASEAN-based institutions must remain at the core, particularly the East Asia Summit, which is the only leaders-level forum with the mandate to discuss strategic, political and economic issues.

The challenge for regional governments is to commit to further strengthening the EAS to give it the mandate and resources necessary to build a stronger regional institution with a common set of security norms, values and cultures.

We must also promote open strategic dialogue alongside military cooperation. A central element of this is ensuring that regional institutions provide a forum to discuss the most important topics of the day, despite their sensitivity. Put simply, open dialogue is an essential part of crisis prevention.

Regional institutions must also develop practical mechanisms to manage risk and resolve disputes. The need for these has often been acknowledged, yet there has been little progress to date.

Indeed, the UN Charter itself acknowledges the critical role that regional institutions must play in resolving localised disputes.

Finally, in this model a central node might develop rules, provide guidance and ensure that sub-regional institutions are pursuing broadly compatible agendas. But it will require a degree of flexibility. It is a method by which we can allow institutions to keep pace with the region’s strategic realities, rather than stretch the existing institutions to breaking point.

I don’t propose to go into precise detail about the steps required to practically implement these goals.

These will be elaborated upon in a report to be released later this year by the Asia Society Policy Institute, of which I am President. I encourage you all to read it. But needless to say, how we progress this agenda will require hard thinking from all of us who have an interest in the institutions that underpin this region.


What I have discussed today is not glamorous. The process of institution building is not easy. But it is vitally important work. We must not stand by and allow regional security tensions and indeed global uncertainty to undermine the significant economic and political achievements of the past 50 years. Working together, committed to this common cause, we can develop a renewed security architecture that can preserve regional peace and prosperity for future generations.

(24 June 2017, Beijing)